By Emma | Always a Gringa
Whenever friends, family, or my students discover that I have a vehicle here in SLP they immediately ask “How do you like driving in Mexico?” some with a small smirk stretching across their face (often locals) others (foreigners) paralyzed in fear at the thought of driving anywhere besides their home country.
Granted it can be intimidating when you start driving in a new place prior to factoring in the differences of driving in a new country. Learning to drive abroad always comes with its challenges, whether it is adapting to navigating on the opposite side of the street, a different mode of transportation, or just learning which rules go and which ones don’t.
Driving in Mexico has hands down been one of the most frustrating things for me as an expat. I don’t know exactly why it made the top of the list maybe it was the traffic, topes, potholes, or the first time someone cut me off when they made a left turn from the far right lane.
But don’t fret! I am going to provide you with the must-knows to safety in the magical land south of the border, whether you are moving to Mexico, driving to Mexico, or just renting a car in Mexico all the need to know to get you driving around Mexico in road trip fashion is below.
Getting a Vehicle
You have a few different options here: you can either rent a car, buy a car in Mexico, or drive your own car to Mexico from the USA. Renting a car in Mexico can be quite pricey – especially if you don’t have your own insurance already (typically covered through a credit card).
Renting a Car in Mexico
Renting a car can be quite expensive and Mexico and it is pretty much always more expensive than what they quote you for. I still believe it is better than having to take buses which doesn’t allow you much flexibility. Also be sure to check if your credit card includes rental car insurance as this will take your price down drastically. Some available car rental companies are:
- Hertz Rental
- Avis Rental
- Cancun Area
- Avant Car Rental
- Thrifty Rental
A friend of mine took a road trip through Central Mexico and she rented a VW Bento for 8 days at the cost of 7600 pesos or 410 USD. She was originally quoted 6300 pesos. This price included insurance, which is mandatory for most areas in Mexico.
Buying a Car in Mexico
Depending on how long you plan on staying in Mexico you could always purchase a cheap car and use that for travel – but that can become quite complicated. (post coming soon)
Driving A Car to Mexico
- If you live in the US close to Mexico you might want to drive your car over the border for your vacation. If you would like to do this you must get your Temporary Import Permit (TIP) at the border (different rules for Sonora & Baja). If you are visiting Mexico on a tourist permit, you can import your foreign-plated vehicle to Mexico, but you must export it again before the permit expires. FMM permits last for a maximum of 180 days (6 months) and cannot be renewed or extended beyond this time period.
- If you plan to drive south of the border zone or outside of the Sonora permit free area or outside Baja, you must obtain a “Temporary Import Permit” online at the border, or from certain Mexican consulates. Banjercito – Mexico’s Banco Nacional del Ejército Fuerza Aérea y Armada, is the government authority who issues vehicle permits.
- There is a “Free Zone” within 22 miles of the US/Mexico border. So if you are driving over for a quick trip you do not need to apply for and obtain a temporary import permit for your vehicle.
Insurance for Driving in Mexico
In order to bring your auto, RV, or motorcycle into Mexico you must purchase car insurance. Your domestic auto insurance will not be honored in Mexico. Remember to buy Mexican insurance before your trip online. It is easier to buy Mexican insurance online than at the border.
You must keep your vehicle legal while in Mexico in order for your Mexican insurance to pay a claim. If your immigration status changes, you must notify Aduana.
For US Plated Vehicles
- Progressive Auto Insurance
For Mexican Plated Vehicles
- HDI Seguros Mexico
- AXA Seguros
- GNP Seguros
For Rental Car Insurance just purchase it through your rental agency.
Getting Around in Mexico
The funny thing about getting a Mexican driver’s license is that many Mexicans don’t have one or don’t even know how to get one. I tried to find out how I could get one so that I could drive my husband’s company car – a requirement from his company, but I was in shock that many people didn’t know how or weren’t sure of the requirements. I did discover it is much easier to get one in more touristy areas like Cancun or Puerto Vallarta, but here in San Luis Potosí, I was told the requirements included taking a driving course in Spanish and taking a blood test – no manches.
Google maps and iPhone maps work decently until you are in newer construction areas that haven’t made the map yet. The nice thing about Google Maps is that you can download an area on the map to use when you don’t have a lot of spare data to use. Sometimes google maps don’t work great for specific addresses, but I typically will have someone send me a location pin through WhatsApp. That way I am guaranteed to have the exact location and Google Maps typically can’t mess that shizz up. I’ve also been told Waze works pretty well in most areas around Mexico too – it also has really live traffic notifications.
Fueling Up for Gas
Pretty much like the USA, but you NEVER pump your own gas. You will pull up and request your preferences, Verde/Rojo lleno por favor or tell them the amount you would like. They will ask you if you are paying with Tarjeta (card) or effectivo (cash). Paying in cash is easiest, but if you pay with a card you might have to get out of the car to punch in your numbers or possibly guess the amount you will pay prior to paying. Sometimes foreign cards won’t work if you are in a more rural area. They will also likely ask if you want them to clean your windshield or check your oil. Always tip the attendant because that’s just what you do here. So be nice. Three to five pesos is sufficient – more if they clean your window or check your oil.
Tolls can get expensive, but honestly, there is nothing better than driving through the mountains on roads so smooth you daydream of rollerblading on them – is this just me? Always carry small cash for the tolls in the car. Fortunately, I’ve always had cash on these toll roads and haven’t had to deal with what the policy is if you don’t have any cash- but if they are anything like the US they get are way more expensive when they finally find their way to you in the mail. If you plan on doing any type of road trip or long distance driving you will definitely encounter toll roads. I’ve driven on multiple toll roads on my trips to Sayulita, Michoacán, and my Road Trip through Central Mexico.
Driving Laws in Mexico
If you are familiar with driving in the USA all the laws are pretty similar. However, a lot of people don’t follow the laws here, which means it could be unsafe if choose to. So as a rule of thumb I would trust your instinct first when it comes to driving. Be a polite defensive driver and don’t expect that someone will do what they are supposed to. I’ve had quite a few friends who have been the victim of a hit and run when the other driver was at fault.
When it comes to speed limits within a city I would advise you to stick with the flow of traffic. Often traffic speeds are not posted and it is just safer to follow the speed everyone else is driving – unless you want to chance getting rear-ended.
People are much more congenial about passing in Mexico. When someone knows that you likely want to pass them they don’t punch the breaks or even speed up, they will slowly merge onto the side of the road so you have room to pass, almost like they create this imaginary third lane. Due to this, people often feel comfortable passing while there is a car in the other lane. People just move out of the way and they aren’t pissed about it. Sometimes the car in front of you will put on their blinker or hazards, letting you know it is okay for you to pass them.
Stop signs act more as yield signs in Mexico and honestly I now rarely execute a complete stop. This is more for safety purposes because no one expects you to fully stop and if you do you have a high chance of getting rear-ended. There are so many car accidents in Mexico, I’d rather play safe than legal. You would be shocked at the number of neck braces that I see here. Even tried my friend’s on, you can never be too careful.
I’ve seen many drivers and even busses make a complete stop at the light, look both ways and then drive right through the intersection if they think the coast is clear. I have not gotten this ballsy yet and have decided that this is where my flexibility ends. However, I will drive through a non-working stop light-because ain’t nobody got time for that.
The glorietas in Mexico range in magnitude: from the typical turn circle to the monstrous GLORIETA. Forget what I said earlier about the people of Mexico being congenial drivers – when it comes to glorietas it is every (wo)man for herself. Some glorietas have traffic lights mid-circle and others are so big and chaotic that they hire a police escort to guide cars through – you would think that the presence of a police officer would help curb aggressive cut-offs, but it definitely doesn’t.
The only accident I’ve been in (the USA or Mexico) happened to be in this dreaded Glorieta. (pictured below)
Here is a diagram of the rules about how to drive through a Glorieta, but honestly once you get in there these guidelines really go out the window. If you aren’t assertive you will definitely get pushed out of a lane (no lanes, this diagram is a lie) and will likely miss your exit which you will then have to suffer another journey around the chaotic circle.
Safety While Driving in Mexico
Topes = road bumps from hell.
Like glorietas, they range in size from small tender bumps to a rollercoaster-like jump that will send any unbuckled passenger flying into the air. They often come unmarked as well, so always beware of possible topes when you start to approach a city or town. They will be lurking….
They also have reverse topes (no idea of their actual name, so someone please tell me). These are just as terrifying as they sound. They are basically a long big intended hole that stretches the width of the road. These are rarer (fortunately) and I have – gratefully – never hit one of these unexpectedly.
These are not your Cali potholes and Michigan potholes don’t even measure up – which is terrifying if you’ve ever experienced a spring in the Midwest. These are deep, all consumable potholes. Locals will often insert whole construction cones inside of these potholes as a warning to unsuspecting drivers- do not hit these by accident and definitely not on purpose. Take extra care after a rain as these potholes are extremely hard to notice when they fill up with rain.
Death Trap U-Turns
These are located all over Mexico and are extremely dangerous. They are often located on main roads or highways. The most important thing is to be patient and to take your time. Vehicles are coming at high speeds and you want to have the most time possible to turn and speed up. Also, be very careful when approaching cars that are utilizing these U-Turns (especially during early or late hours). Cars and Semis will turn when it is not safe and may turn into your lane.
A lot of truck companies don’t restrict their drivers’ hours and many will be under the influence of inadequate amounts of sleep or drugs that will help them stay awake. I have a friend who was hit by a semi truck driver early one morning at one of these U-Turns and he didn’t even stop, just kept on driving even though her car was smashed and she required to go the hospital.
Animals in the Road
It is very common also to see street dogs crossing the road and horses or cows in more rural areas. Just be careful, pay attention, and be patient.
Construction can happen on any road at any time – even if you thought it was a perfectly beautiful road. Mexican construction crews aren’t always on top of their signage so it is always important to take precautions when driving day and night. One night when I was driving home from work my lane suddenly ended and was replaced by a whole filled with broken up concrete and gravel. The only reason I noticed it was due to two small cones that were just chilling on top of the broken up concrete. No warning signs, lights, anything.
However, often on toll roads, the construction crews are really on top of their game. Typically there will be a man waving a flag, a shirt, or a sign to alert you of the approaching construction. Often you will just have to sit for a few minutes as they alternate the lanes of traffic
Driving at night
I would advise against driving in Mexico at night (see potholes above), especially any long distances. The roads can be sketchy (we’ve been over this). Also, if you are driving at night on long stretches of road you are more likely to run into roadblocks or cartel activity. Like my momma said nothing good happens after 12 o’clock.
Also, drunk driving is quite bad in Mexico and not heavily patrolled. Many bars stay open late into the night, not closing until 4 a.m. sometimes even 6 a.m. The last two times my husband and I were driving to the airport at 4 a.m. we saw two different drunk driving accidents. Fortunately, they hadn’t hit another car but had slammed head-on into the railing. Can you imagine if another car would have been there? Locals know to stay off the road at that time for safety purposes.
In the event of rainy or the rarer snowy weather take extra precautions. It is just like the USA with bad weather – people forget how to drive and even more so when you don’t typically get that much rain or snow. Many cities also have old drainage systems and water can often cover a large portion of the road and fill potholes. Drive slow and be patient.
Using your hazards
Mexicans truly take advantage of their hazards and I have really taken a liking to this. I’m bringing it to the US ya’ll. If you’re driving in Mexico on the main road/highway and there is a traffic jam ahead everyone will turn on their hazards as a way to warn their fellow drivers behind them that they need to slow down. This is a way to avoid more accidents.
They also use it to alert general driving conditions and car accidents. If you see a car with their hazards on in front of you or passing you – I would advise that you slow down, they are just helping you out.
Vendors and Begging
The wonderful thing about driving in Mexico is that you don’t even need to go to the store if you want to buy something. Depending on the city you are in you can purchase mirrors, mops, clothing, churros, fruit, kids toys, nuts, handmade goods, and candies while you are waiting at the red light. You can even get your front and back window washed. It is worth 10 pesos to just to see the guy work so fast to complete it in the time that you are at the light. Bobby and I will watch in suspense “is he going to make it?” “No, way he is not going to make in time, the lights green already” spoiler alert… he always makes it.
Also, I’ve bought churros before while I was stuck in traffic which magically resolves road rage in one sugary bite.
There are more than just vendors through- a lot of immigrants from Central America travel through Mexico and will ask for money. They often will show you their passport in an effort to show they are legit. It is nice to give some money to those travelers since often they are escaping very dangerous situations and the road through Mexico is extremely dangerous – many people being murdered or being trafficked.
Parking / Estacionamiento
Depending on where you are driving in Mexico you can typically find these three different options for parking.
Parking on the street
This is the most common option in most cities, however, there are some unwritten rules you must follow. Almost all of the side of the road is fair game as long as you are on the correct side of the road, you parallel park, and you don’t block anyone’s door/drive. Also, some locals get a little angry with people parking in front of their house because this is often their only spot to park too. They retaliate by putting large rocks, chairs, or other objects in the way so you won’t park there. So avoid those spots as well.
Parking in a lot
If you are parking in a lot, you will typically be required to drive through the ticket booth, collect a ticket and pay it before you leave. You cannot, however, pay when you are leaving the lot, you must take your ticket into wherever you are going and then pay INSIDE or at a booth in the lot before you get in your car. You then will need to insert the paid ticket into the ticket booth when you leave. The price is typically around 10 pesos for 3 hours.
Valet parking is everywhere! Shopping centers to fast food restaurants provide valet parking and it is relatively cheap as well, running anywhere from 20 to 50 pesos ($1.50 – $3.00). I don’t think I’ve ever had my car parked by valet before coming to Mexico and now I do it all the time because a girl likes to feel fancy (on a budget).
Traffic Tickets and Bribes
I’ve mentioned earlier that you can’t expect to break the rules and get away with it. Many cities use video cameras on the road to employ automated ticketing. If you get too many of these while driving in Mexico you will most likely get your front license plate taken until you pay the tickets.
As for regular old-fashioned tickets – these are less common. If you do get pulled over – the police officer will often expect a bribe. This comes from countless first-hand experiences of locals and gringas alike. Obviously, not every city is the same, but it is always good to expect it so you are prepared. If you’re a gringa/o you can expect to pay anywhere from 600-1000 pesos. If you don’t speak Spanish or pretend you don’t you can often get away with no ticket or bribe – depending on the police officer.
If you do get a parking ticket while driving in Mexico they will likely take your license plate and hold it until you pay. This happened to us when visiting San Miguel de Allende after we accidentally parked in front of a loading zone. We were able to quickly find the police station that was referenced on our ticket in order to pay and retrieve our license plate. This ticket ran us 161 pesos – roughly 8 USD.
I recently got into my first ever car accident driving in Mexico. I was at the treacherous Glorietta (see below) and rear-ended the car in front of me. During the 10 minutes that we were sitting there, there were two other car accidents that happened on either side of me. Car accidents are so prevalent in Mexican cities and especially in San Luis Potosí because of how fast the city has been growing and the roads were just not constructed for such a large population.
If you do get in a car accident while driving in Mexico quickly call your car insurance company and they will likely have somewhere there in 15-20 minutes. How it works is both parties call their car insurance companies and they then will both show up on the scene and will fill out the paperwork. My insurance officer took photos, a photo of my license and my insurance information and that was that. It was surprisingly quick and convenient and didn’t involve any police officers.
I personally didn’t do enough damage to my car to need it to get fixed in the shop. If you do need to get your car fixed the insurance company will do it through the shop of their choice which can often take a long time. Some of my friends had their car fixed anywhere from 3 weeks to 3 months.
Things to Keep in Your Car While Driving in Mexico
All Important Paperwork- You should have all important paperwork including your insurance information and proof of ownership
Identification – Your country’s Drivers License or your passport
Cash – for tolls, bribes, and snacks!
Snacks – If you are on a road trip I would definitely recommend packing an arsenal of snacks – a girl gets hangry. Driving in Mexico for long distances usually means toll roads and those are food deserts people! Unless you just want to eat some Takis or twinkies from an Oxxo – head to the market prior to your trip and pick up some fresh fruit and veggies!
A Go-Girl – Those toll roads are long and honestly I’ve stopped quite a few times to take a leak on the side of the road without a go-girl (someone stole mine coming back from China. Gross right?) and I just know it would be 50x more pleasant with a go-girl in hand.
Toilet Paper – See above
First Aid- Who knows what is going to happen when you are on the road in Mexico – just kidding – I’ve never used mine. Just better to be safe than sorry. Be prepared!
Spare Tire – For all of those road hazards, the question isn’t if it will happen, the question is when. Also, in Mexico, they have a special security lugnut that comes with the car that will lock the tire. You will need the security lug nut adapter to take off the one security lugnut to take off your tire – it is typically stored in the dash compartment. The security lug nut adapter is specialized for your car. If you don’t have this security adapter you will likely have to take your car to a shop or get it towed.